How to start a Recording Studio with $3,000 and not waste money

John wrote to me and asked if I would suggest gear to help them start a recording studio from scratch on a budget of $3,000.  I enjoy an audio challenge and thought my reply may help others as well.

Here’s the criteria I was given to work with:

  • The cost should not exceed $3,000 by much.  The budget is not a rigid $3,000, but that’s a realistic goal.
  • The $3,000 would be spent over a year.
  • I should offer suggestions for future additions that take the cost up to about $10,000 in future years.
  • The folks starting the studio intend to keep growing, learning and investing above $3,000 in future years.
  • Instruments to record in their first gigs are Keyboard, violin, bass, acoustic guitar and anywhere from 1-15 vocalists.
  • The studio will be in a fixed location, but there isn’t yet any formal acoustic treatment.
  • The client would like to have a computer dedicated to studio work.
  • The client will do this from their home as a ministry to musicians from their church.  They will record the musicians free of charge.
  • My own stipulation – I prefer to only recommend gear that will still be useful even if the studio grows to a million dollar facility.
  • Also my own stipulation – I have no question that I could make records that play on the radio with this gear.

Here goes.

Computer
Mac Mini – $699 from Apple

I’m recommending a Mac for a couple reasons.  First, Mac OS doesn’t have a registry like Windows.  They tend to keep running at the same speed over years of time where PC’s get slower over time due to registry bloat.  Second, most professional studios you visit will probably be using a Mac for recording, so you’ll be ahead of the curve if you ever have to work with someone else’s gear.

I selected the Mac Mini because it fits the budget and will do a great job.  Also, it has Thunderbolt ports, which offer a vast speed improvement over every other way of connecting to a computer.  Even if you don’t fully use the capability at first, you are likely to want Thunderbolt eventually.

The only issue I have with the $699 model is the hard drive speed.  5400 is not advised for audio production.  I would greatly prefer this computer have the 1TB fusion drive, but that will put us a little over budget.  If you can swing it, spend the extra $200 for the fusion drive.

A later step will be to add an external Thunderbolt drive for your audio files.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Software
Pro Tools 11 – See price below bundled with hardware from Sweetwater Sound

Every DAW comes with a learning curve.  It can take years to build up the knowledge and skill to operate a DAW like a Yoda blackbelt. You might as well put all that effort into the tool selected by the majority of professional recording studios.   I have tried many since the mid 90’s and found Pro Tools to offer the best reliability, most efficient workflow and greatest compatibility with other studios.

You’re also going to need competent support to help answer questions.  No other DAW offers as many helpful YouTube videos to help you learn.  Also Sweetwater Sound in Indiana is well known for their post sale support.

Pertinent at the time of publishing… Right now Pro Tools 11 comes with a free upgrade to Pro Tools 12.

Avid has also just announced a free version of Pro Tools called “Pro Tools | First”.  I’m not going to recommend Pro Tools | First for this application because:

  • Limited to 3 project files (songs) at a time without paying more
  • It does not use standard AAX plugins, which could cause compatibility issues for you in the future
  • Can’t save in MP3 format.  Not a huge deal, but it is a nice convenience.
  • Can’t open a standard Pro Tools session.  Again, a potential future compatibility issue.
  • No video playback capability

Pre Amps and Analog to Digital (A/D) Converter
MBox Pro (bundled with Pro Tools) – $999.99 from Sweetwater Sound
Apple Firewire to Thunderbolt Adapter – $29.00 from Apple

This is what your mics will plug into.  The pre-amps amplify the weak analog mic signals up to line-level and then the converters change the analog audio to digital data the computer can manipulate and store.

There are a lot of pre-amp/converter options and they can run up into the tens of thousands of dollars.  I chose this specific brand and model for you because it provides enough channels, gets you some decent sounding converters and comes bundled with Pro Tools 11.  It’s the bundle I’m after and it’s really quite a good deal if you look at what the items cost separately.  Keeps you in budget also.

The Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter is needed because the converter only comes with a firewire port and the Mac Mini computer offers Thunderbolt or USB.  Thunderbolt is preferred over USB.

Mics
1 Shure SM 57 – $69 on Ebay
2 Audio Technica AT4040’s – $234 each on Ebay.  Buy 2.

I won’t claim these are the ultimate mics for the anticipated sound sources.  However, they are within budget, will do an excellent job and will continue to be useful no matter how large your studio grows.

AT 4040’s are condenser mics and pretty good for solo vocals that are not strident or screechy.  They are fantastic on acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and as main stereo or spot mics for choir.  I have also used them very successfully on many orchestral instruments like strings, woodwinds, lower brass or percussion.

On the downside, the 4040’s are heavier than small diaphragm condensers (SDC’s), so some attention is in order to make sure your mic stand doesn’t topple over.  Use a mic stand with metal legs so there is enough weight to keep the mics safe.

SM-57’s are best known as the ideal mic for snare drums and electric guitar cabinets. As a dynamic mic, the 57 offers excellent rear rejection and the “proximity effect” that is a characteristic of all dynamic mics.  Proximity effect = tone control.  In other words, you can change how the lower frequencies sound by simply moving the mic closer to, or farther from, the sound source.   Rear rejection means it’s likely to be a better choice in rooms that are not acoustically ideal.  I would use this on strident tenors and screechy sopranos, violin (depending on the violin), accordion, trumpet and on almost anything if there are loud electronic instruments nearby.  The SM-57 would be my desert island mic, I think.

Don’t ever be embarrassed to use an SM-57.  This is the mic used by the White House Communications Agency.  It’s been on the lecterns of all US presidents since Lyndon B Johnson first used one in 1965.  I once selected this mic as my second overall favorite in a blind listening test against a slew of other mics.  My close but first choice costs $25,000.  And the SM-57 can be used to drive nails if you don’t have a hammer!  (kidding but it is very rugged).  It sounds great, is built like a tank and holds it’s value for resale.

As always, pre-amp pairing, distance from the sound source and room acoustics all play into what mic will work best, but these have proven to be useful over and over for me.

Cables
10 Pack of 25′ XLS mic cables – $99.99 from GLS Audio

It may seem extreme to suggest 10 cables with only three mics, but they can get used up quickly.  I have found it most versatile to invest in mic XLR mic cables and then use adapters on the ends when I need other cables.  New studios tend to get reconfigured often, so I suggest investing first in cables you will likely still need regardless of what future direction you wish to go.

GLS brand cables in particular are a great deal.  I use them for all my location recordings because they are well constructed.  But they are also reasonably inexpensive so it’s not as painful if a stage hand kills one by rolling a grand piano over it (actually mine have survived grand pianos).

Mic Stands
K&M telescoping boom – $74.95 from Amazon.com

K&M stands are all metal and have a metal base. Be sure the end of the boom arm has the 5/8″ threads used in the US and not 3/8″ threads common in the EU.

I rarely encounter a major league professional recording company that doesn’t use K&M mic stands.  Once I started using them, I’ve not bought any other kind since.  Quite simply, they are reliable over years.  The others I have used are not.  Do date, I have not yet had a K&M stand break and I have hauled them all over the place.

Mic Pop Filter
Metal Wind Pop Filter – $12.99 from Ebay

When you put a vocalist in front of a mic, you usually need a pop filter.  I find the metal screen filters hold up and work the best.  This kind of pop filter also works with any kind of microphone and also allows you to control the distance from the mic.  I have also found the smaller size to be a benefit since vocalists often need to see lyrics or other musicians during tracking.  The smaller size is less in the way.

Headphones
Sony MDR-7506 – $56 from Ebay

Both you and the musicians will need a way to hear the previously recorded instrumental tracks during tracking of new instruments or vocals.  I have found the Sony MDR-7506 headphones to be quite durable.  They do tend to boost high frequencies a little, but musicians seem to like it and it accentuates the rhythm of the song to help keep the musicians timing in sync.

Monitor Speakers
Auratone 5C – $350.22 on Ebay

I can see this being the most controversial recommendation I make.  Let me see if I can make a compelling case.

The goal of mixing is to make the song sound good on lots of different sound systems.  When it does, the mix is said to “translate well”.  Auratone monitors, though small, are frequently relied on to help mix engineers quickly dial in a mix that translates well to the kinds of systems end-consumers are likely to be listening on.  These will NOT be your final monitors.  But they will help you get started and you are likely to keep checking mixes on them no matter how big your studio grows.  Feel free to choose more full range monitors, but I can guess you will probably end up selling them for a financial loss later.

Summary List 

Mac Mini $699.00
Apple Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter $28.00
SM 57 $69.00
4040 $234.00
4040 $234.00
metal wind pop filter $12.99
10 pack of GLS $99.99
K&M boom $74.95
K&M boom $74.95
Avid Pro Tools + Mbox Pro $999.99
Sony MDR 7506 $56.00
Sony MDR 7506 $56.00
Auratone 5C $350.22

Grand Total:  2,989.09

Notes and Tips

It should be noted that this is only one possible approach.  Another perfectly valid option would be to use the $3,000 to buy time in a well established studio.  Watching an experienced engineer work could save you years of learning curve.

A list of equipment could be compared to a list of paint colors and brushes.  In the hands of a skilled artist, a great work of art can be created.  But talent, skill and a compelling subject are all needed for a painting to be considered beautiful.  Audio gear is merely a tool in the hands of an artist.  Great tools help, but greatness will only come with practice.

I also need to note that there are some important items you will want to consider right away or at least sooner rather than later as additional funds become available.  For example:

  • data backups
  • acoustic treatment of your tracking and mixing space
  • more versatile monitoring options for the musicians
  • headphone extender cables
  • a MIDI interface for a keyboard
  • a control surface for mixing

Tip – Buy most things used.  Resale value is important, especially if you are just dipping your toe in the water.

Tip – Analog gear holds its value the best.  Digital gear holds its value least (even though it is necessary).

Tip – Note what gear seems to hang around for decades.  There’s a good reason classics become classics.  They work!

Tip – When points of decision arise, be less rigid about budget and force yourself to go with quality.  The misery of poor quality makes one quickly forget the sweetness of low price.

Tip – Don’t buy any piece of gear until you actually need it to solve a specific problem.

Tip – Record groups in a church auditorium.  Until the walls in your permanent recording space can be treated with acoustic foam and diffusion panels, the larger space will benefit your sound.  Specifically, the harsh early reflection waves won’t be as bad.

I would love your feedback and will tweak the post if you can persuade me.

Thanks for reading!

Jeff